If we are to err as Americans on any side in our critique of other countries, it should be in the direction of being...
Weldon Angelos has matching several-day-old stubble on his scalp and on his face. He has striking steel-blue eyes. He holds his body confidently, even aggressively, clad in prison-gray slacks and work shirt. The only visible sign of unease he betrays is the ceaseless intertwining of his fingers. He is twenty-five years old, a resident of the medium security federal penitentiary at Lompoc, California. He is slated to remain behind bars until 2059, when he will be seventy-eight.
Angelos works in the prison’s dental lab and takes college classes—studying religion, philosophy, politics, anything to take his mind off the facts of his incarceration. He hasn’t seen his two sons in the year-plus that he has been in prison. He’s only seen his daughter a couple times. And he doesn’t know if he’ll ever set foot outside the penitentiary grounds again.
“Nothing could be worse than this,” he acknowledges, hours into an interview in the prison’s chilly visiting room, as we sit on blue plastic seats, a low-lying gray plastic table between us. “Even death offers a certain tranquility. I’m not talking about this prison. Just being locked up. Watching your kids grow up, your girl move on, that’s the hardest part right there. I have nightmares I’m being killed, all the time. I’m being shot. I have nightmares something happens to my kids because I’m not there.”
Angelos is not a murderer. Nor is he a rapist, an armed robber, or a kidnapper. If he were, chances are he’d be staring down a shorter sentence than the fifty-five years he’s burdened with. No, he is a medium-scale Salt Lake City marijuana dealer who had no prior felony convictions.
His father, Jim, a Greek immigrant, himself served time in prison in Utah in the 1950s for stealing a Geiger counter. Jim was an eccentric, perennially aspiring country music singer, his mind full of a million plans that never materialized. The family bounced futilely between Nashville and Salt Lake for much of Weldon’s early years.
When Weldon’s mother walked out, Jim was left to raise his three children alone. They lived in dire poverty, their residences a series of apartments in Salt Lake’s dilapidated public housing units. Weldon remembers standing in line for free, government-issued cheese and powdered milk, and walking two miles to school in the snow because the family couldn’t afford a car. Weldon’s friends were members of gangs such as the notorious Vario Loco Town (VLT). In the housing projects, Bloods, Crips, VLTers, and others whom Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s big sister, calls “crummy people,” were a routine presence.
A high school dropout, Weldon had three kids by the time he was twenty. He had two with Zandrah, a girl he’d met when he was only fourteen or fifteen, when he was working as a cook in a Greek restaurant, and one with the woman he left Zandrah for. Somewhat improbably, Weldon thrived as a rap musician—becoming a part of Snoop Dogg’s coterie, recording several albums, picking up the accoutrements (guns, flashy cars, the tough-guy look) necessary for the gangsta image. And, at the same time, he began dealing marijuana, he says, to buy things for his children that his father never bought for him.
Then, in 2002, he sold three half-pound bags, worth a few hundred dollars a piece, to an informant who was working for the Metro Gang Unit as a way to avoid a long prison sentence on his own drug and gun charges. Weldon was arrested by local officers working in conjunction with federal agents.
The informant said that Angelos had carried a gun on his ankle holster during the transactions, at which point the Feds stepped in for the catch. They charged Angelos with offenses under section 924(c) of the federal code—provisions that triggered mandatory sentences for dealers who carried guns during their drug transactions. Instead of facing a sentence in state court for his marijuana dealing that likely would have ranged from probation to a few years behind bars, now—despite the fact the informant’s words were not backed up by any photographic record proving the drug dealer was indeed armed during the deals—Angelos was facing federal charges that could see him locked away for the rest of his life.
The Feds offered Angelos a deal—sixteen years if he would plead guilty on the gun charges, or face upwards of 100 years if he chose to go to trial. Angelos, who to this day continues to deny he was carrying a gun during the drug sales, refused to take the plea. And so the U.S. Attorney’s Office threw the full weight of the law at him, charging him with three 924(c) offenses, each one triggering a mandatory sentence longer than the previous one, each sentence to be served consecutively.
After a jury found him guilty of the charges, on November 16, 2004, Angelos, then aged twenty-four, faced his sentencing. Judge Paul Cassell, in handing down fifty-five years, expressed outrage at the sentence the law required him to impose.
“The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” he said. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape. . . . To correct what appears to be an unjust sentence, the court also calls on the President to commute Mr. Angelos’s sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment.”
When the judge polled the jury, eleven of the twelve stated they thought Angelos should receive five to ten years in prison, rather than more than five decades, but the judge acknowledged that he had no choice in the matter.
Robert Lund, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Utah and the man responsible for prosecuting the case, justifies the sentence.
“Weldon Angelos was a member of a really violent street gang, Vario Loco Town, notorious for violent crimes, shootings, murder, serious assault, and drug distribution,” Lund says. The Supreme Court, Lund continues, “has said armed crime is one of the biggest problems facing our country, and drug distribution is a huge problem. Epidemic. So Congress has chosen to impose huge penalties to try to deter this form of conduct. Section 924(c) is the law of the land. My obligation is to accept that when someone commits the crimes to prosecute him, and then let the courts impose the penalty that’s required by law.”
It’s easy to agree that drug dealing is bad, and that drug dealing while carrying weaponry is even worse. But it’s a leap from there to mandatory sentencing, and, more specifically, extraordinarily punitive mandatory sentencing.
In fact, precisely because mandatory sentences don’t distinguish between someone like Angelos and a seriously violent, predatory offender, they cease to adequately protect the rights of the individual.
“At the end of the day,” argues Jerome Mooney, Angelos’s original defense attorney, “shouldn’t all punishment be individualized in some fashion?”
In recent years, some state electorates and legislatures have started to back away from the more extreme aspects of the drug wars, in part because the costs of incarceration are so high. The Feds, meanwhile, have stepped up their campaign. More and more young men and women are going to federal prisons for longer and longer periods of time on drug convictions, including, as with Angelos, marijuana charges.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the federal prison system had more than 180,000 inmates at the end of 2004. In 1984, 11,854 people were charged with drug offenses in federal court. By 1999, 29,306 were charged. In 1986, the average length of time a person convicted of drug charges in federal court could expect to spend behind bars was two and a half years. By 2003, a year in which fully 37 percent of all charges filed in federal court were for drug crimes, the average length of time such prisoners could expect to serve had skyrocketed to almost seven years.
“It seems to me to be basically irrational,” says Erik Luna, a law professor at the University of Utah and co-appellate counsel for Angelos. “But it’s a warfare mentality. When you perceive other individuals you consider to be partners in your warfare lowering the hostilities toward the enemy, it’s a natural response to increase your offensive. The federal system has expanded exponentially, and the punishments have increased almost every year.”
In fact, so long are the sentences that prosecutors can threaten defendants with unless they agree to a plea bargain that the vast majority of federal cases now no longer go to trial, says Mary Price, general counsel of the D.C.-based organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Guilty or innocent, the risks of losing in trial are now too great for most to take.
Angelos’s lawyers are contemplating an appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to find the sentence cruel and unusual. Twenty U.S. attorneys, five judges, and a former Attorney General have signed on to an amicus brief. But Angelos’s chances aren’t good, since the Supreme Court has already upheld California’s three-strikes law, which has sentenced low-end offenders to life behind bars.
“I’ve seen people go to prison for four years for shooting people,” Angelos says, pondering his fate in the chilly prison visiting room. “I know someone getting out after eight years for cold-blooded killing someone. I’ll be seeing murderers, rapists leave, and I’ll still be in here if I don’t win my appeal.”
Sasha Abramsky, a freelance writer in Sacramento, is the author of the recently published book “Conned,” on voting rights in the United States.